At most schools, the loss of a quarterback like Nick Marshall would be cause for concern.
Marshall arrived at Auburn when the Tigers badly needed a revolution at the quarterback position. In the two years between Cam Newton’s Heisman Trophy season and Marshall’s arrival, Auburn tried four different starters at the position — including Clint Moseley twice — and tumbled all the way to arguably the worst season in the program’s history.
One junior college transfer reversed that trend. A dual threat with a big-play arm and electric feet, Marshall threw for more than 4,500 yards, rushed for more than 1,800, produced 57 total touchdowns and earned 20 wins in two seasons as Auburn’s starter. By the time he was finished, Marshall had arguably earned a place next to players such as Newton, Pat Sullivan, Jason Campbell and Dameyune Craig among Auburn’s all-time greats at the position.
“He was a big part of leading us to the national championship (game), and it would have been extremely hard to get there without him,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn says. “He’s one of the best to ever come through here.”
Replacing a player with that kind of legacy should be hard.
But many around the program believe Jeremy Johnson can be even better.
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The days of programs being able to land only one elite quarterback at a time are gone, as Ohio State so poignantly proved last season during its national championship run.
Auburn never had to call on Johnson in the same way the Buckeyes had to rely on J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones last season. The few times Johnson had to step in for Marshall were temporary; all Johnson could do was give the Tigers a few brief but brilliant glimpses into the future. “We have a lot of confidence in Jeremy,” Malzahn says.
In the first start of his career as a freshman, Johnson stepped in for an injured Marshall and threw for 201 yards and four touchdowns against Western Carolina. His second start was even better. Forced into the starting lineup for Auburn’s 2014 season opener against Arkansas, Johnson completed his first eight passes and finished 12-of-16 for 243 yards and two touchdowns.
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In two seasons as Marshall’s backup, Johnson completed 73.1 percent of his 78 throws for 858 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions. Given what he’s done, it’s hard for most of Auburn’s coaches and teammates to understand any uncertainty surrounding Johnson’s ascension to the starting job.
“There’s so much emphasis put on starting quarterbacks at most schools, we always forget about what they’ve done,” Craig, now a wide receivers coach at Auburn, says. “Jeremy started an SEC game last year and threw for 240 yards in the first half against one of the top defenses in the conference. I’m not concerned about him or his possibilities.”
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Despite two seasons as Marshall’s understudy, Johnson will be a very different weapon than the man who preceded him as Auburn’s quarterback. A towering specimen at 6'5", 230 pounds, Johnson is built more like Newton than the 6'1", 220-pound Marshall, but he’s more of a pocket passer than either of those two star signal callers.
From the time he first started taking snaps for Carver-Montgomery High in Alabama’s state capital, Johnson has been most dangerous from the pocket, where he can unleash an NFL-caliber arm.
“He’s got all the arm talent you could want,” Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee says. “He can throw the ball vertically down the field. He can hit every throw on the field to boundary, to intermediate, to field comebacks. He can make every throw on the NFL route tree — throw a very tight, good ball.”
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Malzahn won’t try to fit Johnson into Marshall’s unique mold. In nine seasons at the college level, Malzahn has always built his system around his quarterback’s strengths, rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
With Marshall at the helm, Auburn deployed a devastating running game built around the zone-read, a play uniquely suited to capitalize on Marshall’s prodigious talents in the open field.
Johnson presents a different test for defenses. Although Malzahn doesn’t like to go into detail, expect Auburn’s hurry-up, no-huddle to return to the Wing-T-influenced, running back-driven rushing attack of 2009 and emphasize the passing game more to take advantage of Johnson’s incredible arm.
He has the weapons to beat teams through the air. D’haquille Williams, who might be the No. 1 receiver in the 2016 NFL Draft, returns as one of the nation’s best possession and red-zone threats to lead the receiving corps.
“I’m expecting some big things from those two guys,” Craig says. “They’ll probably break all (of Auburn’s) passing records this year.”
The Tigers also bring back experienced pass catchers Ricardo Louis and Marcus Davis, talented receivers who’ve been biding their time in complementary roles and now finally have a chance to shine.
Johnson looks like the perfect distributor to get the ball to all of that talent.
“It’s my strength,” Johnson says. “I feel really good about sitting back and making throws, but I’ll run if I have to.”
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Auburn may not abandon the quarterback run entirely with Johnson at the helm. His right arm might be Johnson’s best asset, but the notion that he can’t make defenses pay with his legs is beginning to bother him. In high school, Johnson was a two-sport star, athletic enough to lead Carver to a state basketball championship in 2012.
And in a highly anticipated high school showdown against Auburn High and five-star linebacker Reuben Foster (now at Alabama), Johnson rushed for 114 yards and three touchdowns, often on quarterback draws where he was isolated against Foster in the open field.
He might not have Marshall’s speed and elusiveness on the perimeter, but Johnson believes he can be a different kind of weapon in the running game.
“I’m a downhill runner, the power read instead of the read option,” Johnson says. “I can also use my feet if I have to if the pocket breaks down and make plays. People say I can’t run, but I’m going to show them what I can do.”
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Due to the difference in playing styles, Johnson didn’t pick up much from the way Marshall played on the field.
Off the field, though, the two quarterbacks were close, and one of Marshall’s underrated abilities caught Johnson’s attention. Early in Marshall’s career, the team rallied around his leadership; although he was quiet, Marshall’s calm demeanor in the clutch set the tone for the rest of the Tigers.
“Being a quarterback, you have to be that leader to where your teammates are going to follow you no matter what,” Johnson says. “I’ve got to be able to get them to look right at me and be able to say: ‘Can I trust this person?’”
Johnson has tried to follow in those footsteps this offseason, organizing impromptu throwing sessions with receivers, cultivating a close relationship with Williams and focusing on making the Tigers his team.
Before Williams decided to return for his senior season, he consulted with Johnson, who offered the receiver his support without begging him to come back.
That spoke volumes to Williams.
Now, Johnson’s task is to become that kind of confidant for the entire team.
“I’m looking forward to bringing everybody in to where if I say we’re going to move right, the whole team moves right,” Johnson says.
Johnson spent two long years waiting behind Marshall. For two years, he was the perfect understudy, learning to lead without undermining Marshall’s status as Auburn’s bell cow. Now, after all that waiting, it’s his team.
“It feels great,” Johnson says. “I’m just trying to become a leader first to where my team can follow me, but mainly my goal is to win a national championship.”
If Johnson can do that, he’ll take his place with Marshall in the Auburn pantheon.